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  • Editorial Preface
  • David L. Howell

We devote this issue of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies to an examination of the tributary system and its recent career in the field of International Relations (IR). Doing a special issue of this sort is a first for HJAS. We chose this topic because it is a rare example of dialogue between humanistic scholarship on premodern East Asia and contemporary social science. Whether the dialogue is fruitful or fruitless we leave to the reader to decide, but the very fact that the type of research featured in journals like HJAS has an afterlife in a discipline focused on the here and now of international relations demands our attention.

Every student of East Asia sooner or later encounters the tributary system, a hierarchical ordering of premodern international relations, with China at the apex and a constellation of smaller states throughout East, Southeast, and Inner Asia revolving deferentially around it. John King Fairbank’s edited volume, The Chinese World Order, published in 1968, brought the tributary system to historians’ general attention, though Fairbank and his collaborators neither coined the term nor even agreed among themselves on what precisely it meant.1 Controversial from the start, the tributary system has become for many historians a squishy concept like “feudalism” or the “scientific revolution”—a handy shorthand to characterize a style of diplomacy before East Asia’s incorporation into the world of modern nation-states during the nineteenth century, but incapable of carrying much analytical weight.

Even as it has faded from the historian’s lexicon, the tributary system has enjoyed a revival during the past decade or so among IR scholars, both as an alternative to Eurocentric models of state-to-state relations before the nineteenth century and as a model of what a relatively peaceful international order in Asia and the Pacific might look like during the twenty-first century. Prominent within this effort to rehabilitate the tributary system as an analytical framework for IR [End Page vii] research is the work of David Kang, particularly his East Asia before the West, which is the focus of this special issue.2

When historians have taken note of the tributary system’s second career in IR theory, they have generally reacted with reserve or even open hostility. A good example is Peter Perdue’s trenchant critique, which enumerates many factual and conceptual problems with the tributary system even within strictly historical scholarship and exposes the concept’s dark roots in right-wing discourse during the 1920s and 1930s.3

Our contributors have plenty of criticisms of the tributary system as a concept and its use by Kang and other IR scholars, but the point of the articles collected here is not simply to assess the scholarly merit of work on the tributary system but rather to demonstrate how real interdisciplinary dialogue can work. To that end, we have contributions by two historians and two IR scholars, who consider the tributary system in both conceptual and empirical terms. HJAS thanks Saeyoung Park, who organized the roundtable at the George Washington University in October 2014 that led to this special issue. Special thanks go to David Kang, who responded to the articles, and Prasenjit Duara, who did not participate in the workshop but has kindly contributed an afterword to the collection. [End Page viii]


1. John King Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

2. David Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

3. Peter C. Perdue, “The Tenacious Tributary System,” Journal of Contemporary China 24.96 (2015): 1002–14.



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